Her family wasn’t vegetarian – let alone vegan – but they never used butter, milk or eggs in their baking. “That’s just the way they baked,” said Kristi Touchette, 40.
She’s not sure why, but recalls a relative mentioning a connection to the Depression, when eggs and milk were in short supply so cake recipes were devised without them. Handed down through the generations, these recipes may show up in your family cookbook today, as they do in mine, with names such as Depression Cake, War Cake and Wacky Cake.
Touchette didn’t give much thought to the matter when she was growing up, but her family’s approach came in handy when she became a vegan and again six years ago when she decided to lean on her sculpture degree from the Maine College of Art to produce high-end, 100 percent vegan custom cakes.
And so Ahimsa (which means nonviolence in Sanskrit) Custom Cakes was born.
Today, Touchette has become the go-to baker for Maine vegans in need of wedding cakes or special occasion treats. At this time of year, she is in the thick of the fall wedding season.
But here’s the interesting thing: most of her customers aren’t vegan. “I have maybe 1 or 2 percent vegan customers,” said Touchette, who bakes from the certified kitchen in her Auburn home.
It may be that the bride and groom are trying to accommodate guests who are vegan or have allergies to, say eggs. Or the draw may be simply that her cakes – in unusual and appealing flavors like French Toast (vanilla bean cake with cinnamon-maple frosting) and Blueberry Pancake (vanilla bean cake baked with Maine blueberries with cinnamon-maple frosting) – are beautiful and delicious.
That’s what Kim and Allen Cornwall of Scarborough found. Before getting married last June, Kim discovered Touchette’s website, liked what she saw and booked a cake tasting, though neither she nor her now husband are vegan.
While Kim admits to “loving sweets,” Allen says he is “more of an ice cream and pie guy.” But the samples Touchette served during their tasting made him reconsider. He really liked the frosting; she liked that Touchette uses “real ingredients,” like vanilla beans and Maine wild blueberries. “Kim and I both looked at each other,” Allen said, “and we knew this was the one. This was the cake.”
Avoiding eggs, butter and milk isn’t all it takes to produce a vegan cake. Touchette covers her cakes with edible vegan fondant, which is made with agar from seaweed rather than gelatin from animal bones. To make edible sugar flowers and other decorations, she reaches for unbleached, organic evaporated cane juice that isn’t ground using charred animal bones (a common processing technique for white sugar and one that is not considered vegan). Touchette also uses many organic ingredients.
Touchette designs traditional cakes and unexpected ones, according to her customers’ desires. Among the latter is a wedding cake shaped like a tree and one made to look like a stack of books. (In her free time, Touchette continues to sculpt, using steel, wood, fabric and other non-edible ingredients.)
The cakes start at $4 per serving, with the biggest, most complicated ones costing more than $1,000, comparable to similar, non-vegan custom wedding cakes.
These cakes take time and care, of course, and Touchette doesn’t like to overbook. She says the most wedding cakes she’ll bake in a season is 35. Because of this, brides and grooms do well to call her at least six months in advance. This year, some of those calls may come from friends of Kim Cornwall, who has passed Touchette’s name on “because she’s great.”
Another testimony of sorts took place at the Cornwalls’ wedding reception. The couple didn’t tell guests the cake was vegan, because, as Allen observed, people may have a “preconceived notion that a vegan cake may not taste good.”
“We’d specifically planned on having cake leftovers,” Kim said, noting that for the reception for 110, they ordered a four-layer cake (each layer a different flavor and served separately) for 130 people. “But there was no cake left,” Kim said, still astonished all these months later. “A lot of people went back for seconds.”
And thirds. And fourths.
“We only got a little bite when we cut the cake,” Allen said.
This may be why Kim added, “I can’t wait for something else to come up so we can have her do another cake.”
Avery Yale Kamila is a freelance food writer who lives in Portland. She can be contacted at:
all images, courtesy of: https://www.facebook.com/ahimsacustomcakes